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In British actor Steve Coogan's latest film, The Trip(IFC Films), the British comedian plays a fictionalized version of himself. His "Steve Coogan" character has been commissioned by a U.K. newsaper to write about six restaurants in Northern England. When his relationship hits the skids right before he leaves and his girlfriend refuses to join him, he decides to take his friend—fellow comedian and impressionist, Rob Brydon, also playing a heightened version of himself—along for the journey.* The movie, which was originally a BBC series, was directed by Michael Winterbottom. He's directed Coogan and Brydon before in the clever and complicated Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. This effort is an ambling portrait of the relationship between the two men. Between courses at fancy and bucolic boites, discussions of art, love, and battling Michael Caine impressions ensue.
Slate spoke with Coogan about the difficulties of playing himself, his disdain for impressions, and his love of a talking dog video. (Disclosure: My husband works for IFC films.)
Slate: You're playing a character called Steve Coogan in this movie. How closely does the character hew to your actual self? Were there particular aspects of your personality you ended up emphasizing?
Steve Coogan: It's a combination of all those things. There's elements of me that are in there. But the elements that are me are exaggerated, given more of a caricature. And the same goes for Rob. The other side of it is there is some invention there, too. We fashioned it based loosely on who we are. We manufactured and overemphasized the differences between our two characters so that we could come up with that tension and acrimony.
Slate: What sort of traits do you think that you overplayed to play up that tension between the two of you?
Coogan: I come up as slightly too precious and pretentious, and though there's some truth to that, I'm not as po-faced and neurotic and anxious as I come across in the film. I'm a bit more laid back and don't take myself quite so seriously. So I exaggerated that.
Slate: The conversations between the two of you flowed so naturally in the movie—how much of it was improvised and how much of it was worked out before you were there?
Coogan: Well half-and-half, really. I manufactured with Rob—we'd have conversations ourselves in reality, and then say, well that would be a good conversation to have, let's have that, and you can emphasize this, and I'll interrupt you and say this. We'd sort of figure it out before we'd do it. But some of the conversations happened completely naturally, and once they did, then we'd have to shoot the scene from other angles, and we'd have to have the conversation again, and try to cover the same ground. But we were always shooting with two cameras so we could kind of say whatever we liked in a given moment.
Slate: The impressions the two of you did stuck out as the most lighthearted and fun parts of the movie. How did you develop the skill of impersonating people and is there someone you particularly enjoy impersonating the most, besides Michael Caine?
Coogan: The thing is, when I started out in the business 20 years ago, that's how I started doing stand-up comedy and doing impersonations. But I always hated it, and hated doing it, really. And so there's truth in that when Rob wants to do them and I say that I think it's pathetic.
Slate: Why do you think it's pathetic?
Coogan: I don't quite think it's as bad as I make out. I think it's trivial, and when you sort of want to be taken seriously or show that you have substance to your comedy and that you're creative, then doing voices like that is just like a party trick, nothing more than that. I find impressionists slightly annoying, really. I mean they're sort of fascinating but I don't find them particularly funny, even though I can do it. So we made a virtue of that in The Trip, by having Rob, who's very comfortable doing them, dragging me into doing them, so there is a part of me that's competitive. Do I have a particularly favorite one I do? I like doing unusual ones, like Martin Sheen, people like that, ones that aren't immediately obvious.
It's something I left behind a long time ago, and tried to get away from, so I've got a difficult relationship with impersonations.
Slate: This is your third collaboration with director Michael Winterbottom (after 24 Hour Party People, and Tristram Shandy). What's your working relationship like with him, and what makes you keep coming back to him as a director?
Coogan: He always does something bold and different. He's not lazy. He's not interested in repeating himself. He likes to take a risk creatively, and I suppose I've got a very good relationship with him. He takes me slightly outside my comfort zone, which I strangely like. I like sort of discomfort.
Slate: This is the second time you're playing yourself in a Winterbottom movie—in Tristram Shandy, you played yourself playing Tristram. How is it to keep playing versions of yourself in these movies? Do you have different "Steve Coogans" that you're putting forth as the role requires? It is a very strange feeling to be playing a fictionalized version of yourself?
Coogan: It is a strange feeling. But it's also quite liberating too. Because we're fictionalizing it by having actors play my parents and Rob's wife and my girlfriend are all actors, all the people in it are actors, it gives you license to invent things. But there's a kernel of truth in some of the things that we do. It's strange and often it's uneasy really, but most of the time it is quite liberating. My concern doing it is that it comes across as self-indulgent. It has to have some meaning besides navel-gazing, or else it's dull for people, boring.
Slate: A few years ago in an interview, you said, "The default response these days is to curl your lip up at everything whereas the radical choice is to say something non-cynical. Doing something with genuine sentiment is the most avant-garde thing you can do at the moment." Do you feel that playing these versions of yourself is something genuine, and that you feel really shows something to the audience that's earnest?
Coogan: I like to think it's got—that's the pathos in it. It's not just satirical but it has light and shade and it has funny moments and moments of contemplation. It ticks that box. Michael does have—he makes genuine movies that he genuinely believes in, irrespective of how commercial they might be. He tries to do something different and I think there is a lot of arch, clever cynicism, which can be entertaining, but I crave something more, so, yeah, I like to think it does.
Slate: Back to the realism of The Trip—Are you a foodie? Is writing about food something you'd want to do? How did that conceit arise?